Triumph of Love nearly nails it

The performance at Clarence Brown is easier to admire than enjoy

Director David Kennedy's straightforward, plush realization of Marivaux's The Triumph of Love is a commendable production, easier to admire than enjoy but offering nevertheless a worthwhile opportunity to see a significant play.

The 1732 French classic, in Stephen Wadsworth's loose and feisty adaptation, is a comic analysis of the nature of romantic love, the psychology of lovers, and the endless battle between amour-propre and the riotous impulses that lie beneath the surface. The play's most flawed characters treat romantic love as if it were simply a social construct which one may either embrace or reject, but of course as 18th-century France would eventually discover, the yearnings of the heart cannot forever be contained by inflexible structures, be they of the body or the body politic. The servants in The Triumph of Love are still contented enough as they dutifully prune the palatial gardens, but here and there we feel the first drops of what will become a bloody deluge, violent enough to turn those green lawns crimson.

The best elements of this production are homegrown. Nathaniel J. Sinnott has once again created a set that garners a spontaneous round of applause from the audience. And rightly so; the scenic design is simple, bold, and epic. Sinnott is a clear-sighted creative force whose perfectly realized concepts are worthy of any top-tier theater or opera house, which is doubtless where he's headed after this, his final Clarence Brown commission.

No less impressive are the costumes of Eric Abele. Abele displays the taste and discernment to know when to blend and when to stand out. His design for Hermacrate, with flowing tails and a vast, rigid bouffant, gives the character an elegant yet comic whiff of Gary Oldman's Dracula.

It's only the actors—Equity-accredited professionals from around the country—who are parachuted in. I'm always faintly riled by those petty, divisive asterisks in the cast list that separate the unionized from the non-unionized, as if entry to Equity were some sort of dizzying honor. In practice it's a largely meaningless apartheid and the trade union, while not yet as bloated and overprivileged as the Screen Actors Guild, has misguidedly scuppered as many worthwhile artistic ventures as it has assisted.

The cast of The Triumph of Love is competent and generally likeable, but no more so than a student cast would have been. There is a good number of wholly excellent actors on campus; why does the coach have them sitting on the bench for so much of the season? Next door at the Lab Theatre, in a small and largely unadvertised student production of Fuddy Meers, the bright, brisk, and quizzical Martha Reddick offers a performance every bit as strong as many of those we're offered at the Clarence Brown. Surely it would be to the mutual benefit of actors and producer to showcase more prominently these under-utilized resources, and one suspects that as the recession begins to claim more and more corporate sponsors, such an arrangement will seem increasingly attractive.

Pick of the crop in the Triumph of Love cast is the angular, rangy Terry Weber as Hermacrate, whose careworn face simultaneously conveys both disdain and befuddlement. He is a pleasure to watch, as is Susan Wands as the aging spinster Léontine. Wands' breathless, elopement-ready arrival in the final act is the most hilarious moment of the evening.

There's no shame in not quite making it to the top of Everest, and Ginny Myers Lee deserves credit for gamely scaling the treacherous faces of the central character, Léonide, planting her flag just a few hundred feet from the summit. The demands the role makes on an actress are brutal; aside from the perpetual reversals of adopted gender required by the genre, at least 90 words in every 100 of dense text in Act I belong to Léonide, and in some of the more opaque sections it's almost impossible to avoid sounding one-note.

People who try hard but fail tend to be comic, unless of course they're trying hard but failing to be comic. Brad DePlanche, as Harlequin, falls into this trap. As an actor he is varied, he is inventive, and he is enjoyable. Unfortunately he's just not funny. There's a campy eagerness to his ceaseless gyrations which is endearing, but he is gulled, Malvolio-like, by an over-generous audience into the belief that activity equals wit.

These small faults do not, however, significantly detract from the polished, clockwork plot or the overall warmth of the production. The Triumph of Love is important and entertaining, although it must be admitted the former a little more so than the latter.